Rumours had been rife for some time that Prince Edward was joining the Royal Marines initially for a three day assessment. If accepted the course would take around a year before passing out and earning the green beret.
Security was extremely tight so getting anywhere near the Prince outside any official photo call was nigh on impossible. However, the district staff men (on the national papers) were keen to be seen to researching the possibilities and decided collectively to send me on their behalf to take a good look at the prospects. So I did!
So every day for exactly two weeks, I drove to Exton in East Devon, parked near the Silver Fox restaurant which was also very near to the Exeter to Exmouth railway line known as the “skippy train”. It was a handy spot for my plans to recce the tarzan assault course that the Prince would be going on, according to intelligence received.
The course ran alongside the railway line but couldn’t be reached without a slightly hazardous walk, heavily loaded with a rucksack of camera & lens. The alternative was walking along the line itself and being run down by the 11.22 hrs from Topsham as it trundled along the estuary line without a care in the world.
For 15 days, I went to bed around 8 30 pm every night, rising before dawn in order to arrive at the location when it was still relatively quiet. The main problem was that although we knew Edward was going to tackle the course, we just didn’t know when, so my task was to assess the logistics, work out the possible timings by monitoring other courses and then make a plan as to how to cover the event, should we be lucky enough to find out in advance when the Prince’s group would go through!
I decided to stay sober for the entire fortnight. What with early nights and early rises, I really had to be on my toes, stay sharp and have my wits about me, especially as there were men in green running about all over the place and armed to the teeth. I did keep a discreet distance and stayed far enough back, using small binoculars to suss out what was going on. But it was hard going, keeping out of the way of everyone although there was good cover from the trees on the railway line so I was able for the best part, to keep out of sight.
With ten days gone by, I put in my first call to a very good military contact that I’d developed way back when Edward’s brother Andrew had done his training a few years previously.
I was starting to get anxious as a lot of time was going in without anything coming back and the office (I was working for the local agency at the time) wanted me back on the rota for other jobs as opposed to ‘swanning around the boozers in Lympstone’ which of course I wasn’t. But despite the hard work, there was no info forthcoming and it was getting close to a third week of ‘staking out’ the marine camp.
Suddenly there was a glimmer of hope. I had a call from my contact to say that the Prince’s group would be going through at around 7 00 am the next morning so I quickly decamped and went straight to the nearest phone box to let the office know. Within two hours, every national staff district photographer was in Devon, booked into the local hostelry, the Nutwell Lodge just a few hundred away from the main gate of the camp. I was pretty tired by this time and the staffers suggested that I put my feet up, relax and have a drink on them to say thanks for sorting the job so well and that’s where everything went wobbly as I got absolutely plastered and eventually got home in the early hours knowing full well that I had to be on the road by 6 00 am the next day!
So nursing an almighty hangover (I still don’t know how I got home the night before), I gathered my thoughts and my kit and struggled to the car (blue Ford Escort 1300!) and got myself to Lympstone for around 7 30 am. Sure enough we knew the intelligence was correct as there were military police and marines with guns all over the place!
Everything happened so quickly as we heard the shouts of the training instructors as they bellowed out their orders to the would-be cadet marines and it wasn’t long before the Prince was spotted in khaki trousers and a white top, hauling himself along the ropes. What I didn’t realise, was the fact that he was in receipt of a bloody nose. (More on that in a minute). All I was interested in was getting a good, sharp image of the Prince playing soldiers and that’s exactly what I got.
That was proved the next day as virtually all the national daily papers used my image even though they all had their own photographers there. So I was feeling very pleased with myself as what I quietly thought was the best picture, had made the two week campaign worth the effort.
A final note about the bloody nose as a number of journalists insisted that it had been a myth: ie the Prince didn’t get a bloody nose and that the negative had been tampered with. So for the record, let me assure those doubters that when I heard about the blood (which I didn’t see at the time as the film was picked up by courier), I went straight to the dark room and spoke to the printer who showed me the neg and under the lamp you could see the blood oozing out of Edward’s nose.
I had scooped the national pack with the best picture of the day despite having a dreadful hangover!
My reward was not a celebration dinner but a night job which was a bingo winner in the heart of a very rough area of Exeter and before you ask, I was on the staff at the agency so no bonus either just the knowledge that it was my turn to be top dog that day!
Images shot with Nikon FM and 500mm cat mirror lens